Microsoft Project Natick is an innovative research project to discover new ways of hosting datacenters underwater. The goal of this research project is to determine the feasibility of subsea datacenters powered by offshore, renewable energy. Since 50% of the Earths population lives near the coast, this has potential to host data and compute capacity for Cloud computing much closer to customers and end users. There are also some other benefits as well.

Benefits of Project Natick & Undersea Datacenters

By provisioning datacenters and deploying these datacenter container vessels in the Ocean, they can be more easily deployed closer to customers and end-users. Since roughly 50% of the Earths population lives near the oceans coasts, this presents a tremendous opportunity to be able to deploy Cloud datacenters almost anywhere in the world. However, this is not the only benefit to hosting undersea datacenters!

Here’s a couple benefits of Project Natick and hosting undersea datacenters:

  • Rapid Provisioning – Datacenters can be deployed at scale from start to finish in no more than 90 days. This enables rapid responses to market demand.
  • Lower Latency – Latency is the time it takes for communication or data to travel between its source and its destination. When communicating with a datacenter a great distance from your computer, there’s a great or fair amount of latency depending on how far away you are. Since half the Earth’s population lives within 200km of the ocean, placing datacenters offshore increases the proximity of the datacenter to the population. This dramatically reduces the latency of communicating with that datacenter.
  • Higher Sustainability – The goal of Project Natick is to create sustainable datacenters that leverage locally produced green energy from wind, solar, and other renewable sources. Project Natick datacenters are envisioned to be fully recycled, and even manufactured from recycled materials. The datacenters also consume zero water for cooling or any other purpose.
  • “lights out” operation – Project Natick is building datacenter vessels that are designed to be long-lived and resilient with the life of a deployment as long as 10 years with absolutely nobody on site to maintain it. This will provide lower maintenance datacenters that are built to run for a long time with high reliability.

These are some really great goals of Project Natick and amazing benefits to running undersea datacenters. If you contrast these with land-based datacenters, there are some big differences. One of the biggest differences is that land-based datacenters use alot of water for cooling; where undersea datacenters will be naturally cooled by the ocean water that surrounds them.

Project Natick Phase 2 Deployment

The current Phase 2 of Project Natick aims to demonstrate that Microsoft is able to economically manufacture full scale undersea datacenter modules and deploy them in under 90 days from decision to operation. The Phase 2 vessel (datacenter module) was deployed in June 2018 at the European Marine Energy Centre located in the Orkney Islands, UK.

Here’s a short video Microsoft published to show off Phase 2 of Project Natick:

Project Natick Phase 1 Deployment – circa 2016

Project Natick was established in 2015, and the Phase 1 datacenter module was deployed in 2016. The Phase 1 module was smaller than what was deployed with Phase 2. The purpose of Phase 1 was to confirm that Microsoft can successfully deploy and operate datacenter equipment in an undersea environment. This confirmation was filled with challenges; such as cooling large scale electronics and withstanding the effects of biofouling.

Here’s a video Microsoft published back in 2016 about the Phase 1 deployment. It contains some interesting information about the challenges and construction of the vessel for this first confirmation of feasibility.

Project Natick and Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Project Natick is a research project that Microsoft is working on to determine the feasibility of undersea datacenter deployment. It’s not specifically aimed at providing deployment technology for Microsoft Azure at this time, but it’s only a natural conclusion that this technology will be used for Microsoft Azure datacenters at some point in the future.

Microsoft Project Natick may not be the colonization of the oceans that we’ve all seen in science fiction movies. However, this looks to be a really great start to utilizing the oceans to be more green and sustainable, while solving the need to build increasing Cloud computing capacity over the coming years.

This is exciting innovation to watch, and it would be amazing to work on the team that’s making this happen. This is future technology being worked on today, and it’s truly inspirational!

Posted by Chris Pietschmann

Chris is a 6-time Microsoft MVP and has nearly 20 years of experience building enterprise systems both in the cloud and on-premises. He is also a Certified Microsoft Azure Solutions Architect (both MCSD and MCSE), a Microsoft Certified Trainer, and self proclaimed Cloud Advocate. He has a passion for technology and sharing what he learns with others to help enable them to learn faster and be more productive.

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